The gay community knows all about what it is like to be subjected to religious persecution. Many gays have turned away from their faith, discouraged by the general contempt shown by most major religions.
Yet while countries driven by Judeo-Christian beliefs may still not entirely condone homosexual practices, rarely do we see the religious violence against homosexuality that is so prevalent in Islamic countries.
Several countries with an Islamic majority, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the north of Nigeria, follow conservative holy laws (known as Sharia laws) that propose the death penalty for any form of homosexual behaviour. The accused who do escape such a fate still receive jail time, fines or physical punishment such as whipping for their actions.
It has been estimated by the Boroumand Foundation that since the 1970s, over 4000 people have been tortured and executed in Iran for homosexual activities.
Even South Africa, a country with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, has a large Muslim population that finds it difficult to discuss the issues of homosexuality within its community. When it is discussed, even the most liberal Islamic leader (better known as an Imam) will politely condemn it.
It is an arduous task even for the devout Muslim to live a good life that follows the teachings of the Qur’an; To balance one’s vices with one’s religion is hard enough for the average heterosexual, but it is the homosexuals among the Islamic faithful that have an even greater struggle to find a way to mesh their lifestyle with their faith.
Gay Muslim film-maker Parvez Sharma focused on the difficulties faced by Islamic homosexuals from around the world in his recent documentary A Jihad for Love. Sharma conducted interviews with gay Muslims in twelve countries, including South Africa, in an attempt to show what a lonely and often dangerous road these men and women traverse.
Most of the interviewees in the film requested that their faces be obscured and voices be digitally altered out of concern for their safety and privacy, but South African participant Muhsin Hendricks bravely told his story without any such disguises.
This ex-scholar of the Islamic University of Karachi was seen as one of the best Arabic teachers in the Cape Town Muslim community, but he was removed from his teaching position after coming out of the closet. He was subsequently shunned by his community, and eventually felt the need to move to Johannesburg.
A few years after this incident, Muhsin Hendricks returned to Cape Town, and is now working as director of The Inner Circle, an organisation that attempts to combat the incongruence between religion and homosexuality. The group’s goal is to create awareness around homophobia and re-educate faith based communities about alternative sexual orientations.
Hendricks describes the two-phase system that The Inner Circle uses to attain this goal within the Muslim community. Firstly, the organisation attempts to help those in a religious crisis to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. This is achieved through bi-monthly group meetings that encourage homosexuals not to shun their faith, but rather to embrace it.
These meetings express the organisation’s view that it is a patriarchal and ultra-orthodox interpretation of the Qur’an and weakly substantiated sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that have led the Islamic community into believing that any alternative to heterosexuality is perverted.
“To him, Islam not only provides a sense of spiritual wholeness, but also a sense of community that he does not wish to lose…”
The oft-quoted story of Lot, and the holy condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah has become an anti-homosexual mainstay among religious figures, who claim that it was male to male sodomy that condemned the two cities.
The Inner Circle believes that this particular anecdote has been misinterpreted, and that God’s wrath was brought about by a prolonged misuse of sexual power. “I believe it was more about sexual deviance and rape than sodomy,” states Hendricks, who has spent the past several years studying Islam.
This disempowerment of the staple arguments against homosexuality, combined with regular meetings that provide community support form the healing process that Hendricks believes is needed to mend the psychological rift in the minds of religious gays.
These meetings also provide a place where individuals can see that they are not alone in their plight, and where they can finally share their thoughts with other people who have been forced into a conflict between sexuality and religion.
The second phase in the organisation’s campaign is to combat homophobia within the Muslim community by encouraging debate and creating awareness about the persecution that Islamic homosexuals face. The Inner Circle has included several screenings of A Jihad for Love in its push against homophobia, followed by question and answer sessions that provide incentive to discuss the issues that are so often ignored by heterosexual Muslims.
Several critics have argued that while A Jihad for Love is a powerful and eye-opening film, it fails to provide reasoning behind why these LGBT Muslims remain so dedicated to a religion that seemingly despises them.
In response to this, Hendricks stated: “The film does not presume to answer such a difficult and pertinent question. It is more a tool that facilitates discourse about homosexuality; one that creates awareness of the dangers of homophobia.”
Muhsin Hendricks provides his own answer to this question, however, by describing a number of success stories among local gay Muslims.
“Due to the tightly-knit nature of the Islamic community, many gays and lesbians who were ostracised by their families were welcomed back a few months later,” says Hendricks, who was also repatriated into Cape Town Muslim society, and has been asked several times to speak to his community about homosexual issues.
To him, Islam not only provides a sense of spiritual wholeness, but also a sense of community that he does not wish to lose.
Hendricks acknowledges that not all local Muslims have been so lucky, and that the stigma around homosexuality has resulted in several terrible incidents in recent years. A local Muslim woman committed suicide because she could not cope with her family’s reaction towards her sexual orientation, and there was yet another occurrence involving several Imams who refused to bury an AIDS victim.
According to Muhsin, it seems that these homophobic events are occurring less and less within the local Muslim culture, especially as organisations such as The Inner Circle continue to spread a message of tolerance. Recently, many have associated Islam with religious violence and extreme fundamentalism, but so rarely are we exposed to the gentler, community-based side of the culture that does provide acceptance for all within it.
For more information on The Inner Circle, please visit: www.theinnercircle.org.za or contact them directly at (021) 761 0037. For more information on ‘A Jihad for Love’, visit the official website: www.ajihadforlove.com.